Jammie Thomas (now Thomas-Rasset) is not the first person charged by the RIAA with copyright infringement for downloading and sharing music files, but she is the first to have taken the RIAA before a jury, rather than reach a settlement outside.
She lost her first trial and was ordered to pay $222,000 damages for sharing 24 songs. However, a retrial was ordered when the judge revealed that he had falsely instructed the jury on the technicalities of copyright infringement. The retrial concluded yesterday, with a federal jury finding Thomas-Rasset liable again, and a judge now ordering her to pay damages of $1.92 million, or $80,000 for each of the following tracks:
* Guns N Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”; “November Rain”
* Vanessa Williams “Save the Best for Last”
* Janet Jackson “Let’s Wait Awhile”
* Gloria Estefan “Here We Are”; “Coming Out of the Heart”; “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”
* Goo Goo Dolls “Iris”
* Journey “Faithfully”; “Don’t Stop Believing”
* Sara McLachlan “Possession”; “Building a Mystery”
* Aerosmith “Cryin’”
* Linkin Park “One Step Closer”
* Def Leppard “Pour Some Sugar on Me”
* Reba McEntire “One Honest Heart”
* Bryan Adams “Somebody”
* No Doubt “Bathwater”; “Hella Good”; “Different People”
* Sheryl Crow “Run Baby Run”
* Richard Marx “Now and Forever”
* Destiny’s Child “Bills, Bills, Bills”
* Green Day “Basket Case”
Statutory damages for willful infringement of copyright can range from $750 to $150,000. The jury in this case were particularly punitive, it is thought, because they felt that Thomas-Rasset had been lying to them. And it must be said that the story of how the files got from her computer onto the Kazaa filesharing site has been sketchy. Nevertheless, the judge in this case appears not to have clarified the difference between the right to statutory damages and the right to compensatory damages. The former allows for whopping punitive fines like this without the burden of demonstrating exactly how much money has been lost for each infringement.
According to ars technica, there is talk, however, that the RIAA may not try to collect these damages for fear of stoking even more grassroots anger. There is also a good chance that this case will go further, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court, since there may be Constitutional concerns over the exorbitant fines that music corporations are empowered to wield against individual citizens.
Whatever happens, it is extremely unlikely that a cent will go to any of the artists above, some of whom have had previous brushes with copyright infringement. Bryan Adams has forced fansites into signing rights agreements for use of his name and picture. A blogger was arrested for streaming nine leaked songs from Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy (his sentence was reduced to one year imprisonment for assisting the FBI); the band weren’t impressed. And Aerosmith have successfully used the threat of copyright action to prevent one of their songs being used in a GOP campaign video.
There are pros and cons to all these stories, and to the Jammie Thomas-Rasset case. Artists have, and deserve, rights in their works that need to be protected. The big flipside, particularly evident in Thomas-Rasset, is that the legal mechanisms appear to be in place now for corporate copyright holders to exercise a power way beyond the spirit of the rights they are defending, and possibly even against the interests of their own artists if anger against their policies continues and spreads. The big question still unaddressed is for how long will artists be happy to remain complicit in the punitive strategies of their paymasters, or will there come a point when they realise that such wild-eyed greed is not why they got into music in the first place?